For Whom Did Jesus Die?
Jesus indeed died. That is a central truth of the faith. He died for our sins, accepting the punishment that we merited by our sins, both mortal and venial. This too is a central, non-negotiable principle of the faith. Jesus dying for our sins tells us the why of His crucifixion. But for whom did He suffer and die? That is a different question.
To answer this question, it is instructive to take a bit of a step back and look at what non-Christians think and teach about Jesus’ death. The Jews have no definitive teaching on Jesus: He is not a part of their belief. Nevertheless, they would generally say that Jesus was a historical figure as much as Julius Caesar was, but not much more than that. They would deny that Jesus was a prophet, they would assert that Jesus was a false messiah, they would say that He definitely died, and they might even admit that Jesus died on the cross. Some Jews might see Him as a misguided rabbi, others as a heretic, and still others would discount Jesus as a man suffering from mental issues.
The muslim understanding is totally different. As far as they are concerned, Jesus was definitely a prophet and that He was the messiah, understood simply as the anointed one, but they would deny categorically that Jesus went to the cross and absolutely insist that He did not suffer or die. Most muslims believe that someone was indeed crucified on Good Friday, that the Romans and Jews thought that it was Jesus, but that someone else took His place. While it is not a universally held belief, many muslims think that Jesus made someone else, frequently thought to be Simon of Cyrene, appear to look just like Himself so that the Romans and Jews were convinced that Jesus was crucified. Others will say that someone who naturally looked like Jesus, frequently understood to be Thomas who was called Didymus (meaning twin), was crucified instead of Jesus. This assumes that Thomas closely resembled Jesus, but there is zero evidence of that: it is more likely that Thomas had this nickname before he met Jesus. In any case, almost all muslims will say that Jesus was assumed, but not ascended by His own power, into heaven like Elijah and never tasted death.
Thus, neither the Jews or the muslims can say that Jesus died for anyone, with the Jews thinking that He died like any other mere mortal, and the muslims insisting as a matter of faith that He did not die at all. This means that His death really has meaning for Christians alone. Thus, surely all or almost all Christians believe the very same thing about those for whom Jesus died. Sadly, there is a much wider spectrum of belief in this matter than there really ought to be.
For example, some fundamentalists would argue that Jesus died only for those who explicitly believed in Jesus while He was here on earth and for those who would later come to believe in Him. Those who predated Jesus’ earthly life would have simply been out of luck no matter how pious and righteous they might have been. This would mean that no human, or virtually none, in heaven is older than about 2050 years. Too bad for Isaac, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, and so forth.
Other Christians insist that Jesus died only for those who will be saved. This would mean that Jesus did not die for anyone who goes to hell. This belief stems from the teachings of John Calvin, who taught that Jesus suffered and died only for the elect and those who were predestined to hell would have no atonement for their sins. The thinking here is that if Jesus died for someone, then they certainly would be guaranteed a place in heaven.
This belief in limited atonement contradicts what the Scriptures teach (Heb 10:10, 1Jn 2:2, Rom 6:10, 2Pet 3:9, 1Tim 2:4, etc.). Hebrews 2:9 could not be clearer: “But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” So why did Jesus die even for unrepentant sinners? Jesus suffered and died for their sins, and the unrepentant sinner will have to answer for His blood. Indeed, no one in hell can blame their plight on Jesus, no one suffering for eternity can say that their damnation came about because God withheld His mercy. No, the glory of salvation belongs to Christ alone but the shame of damnation belongs to man’s folly alone.